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‘Discovery Rule’ Allows Floating Statute of Limitations for Some Child Sexual Abuse Victims


Key point 10-16.4. The statute of limitations specifies the deadline for filing a civil lawsuit. Lawsuits cannot be brought after this deadline has passed. There are a few exceptions that have been recognized by some courts: (1) The statute of limitations for injuries suffered by a minor begins to run on the minor's 18th birthday. (2) The statute of limitations does not begin to run until an adult survivor of child sexual molestation "discovers" that he or she has experienced physical or emotional suffering as a result of the molestation. (3) The statute of limitations does not begin to run until an adult with whom a minister or church counselor has had sexual contact "discovers" that his or her psychological damages were caused by the inappropriate contact. (4) The statute of limitations is suspended due to fraud or concealment of a cause of action.

A Washington state appellate court ruled that the "discovery rule," which extends the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse claims until victims "discover" that their emotional injuries were caused by the abuse, enabled an adult woman to sue her former church for the child abuse she suffered as a minor based on the acts of a volunteer youth worker. From 2002 through 2004 an adolescent female (the "victim") was sexually abused by an adult youth group leader (the "defendant") at her church. In 2007 she turned 18, and the next year she was married. Over the next several years she experienced sexual dysfunction and a lack of intimacy, and she and her husband argued about whether to have children. Her symptoms, including flashbacks, guilt, and other emotional problems, were worse than she had ever experienced, and the marital problems continued until their divorce in 2011. The victim was also confused about her sexuality. She engaged in a sexual relationship with another woman that also caused significant confusion in her life. The victim also experienced problems at work, and struggled to reconnect with her religion. The church was no longer a comforting influence in her life.

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